U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during at the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C. (Photographer: Shawn Thew/Pool via Bloomberg)

Trump Supports Israel Sovereignty Over Golan, Aiding Netanyahu

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said it’s time for the U.S. to “fully recognize” Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a political gift to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just weeks before a tough re-election vote.

The remark -- which would break with decades of U.S. policy -- could prove decisive in swaying Israeli voters just as Netanyahu faces corruption allegations that have marred his campaign. It is also likely to draw a rebuke from the international community, which never recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the territory it captured in 1967.

“The message that President Trump has given the world is that America stands by Israel,” Netanyahu said Thursday after Trump’s tweet.

Trump’s message came a day after Netanyahu, in a press briefing with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in Jerusalem, called for the U.S. and the rest of the world to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Israel extended its law to the area in 1981.

The future of the plateau, a scenic area containing important water sources, had long been considered a subject for negotiation in any potential peace agreement with Syria. Now, with Syria wracked by a civil war that includes support from Iran, Israel wants its control over the area to be recognized worldwide.

“I’ve been thinking about doing that for a long time,” Trump said in an interview to be broadcast Friday on Fox Business Network’s “Mornings With Maria.” “It’s been a very hard decision for every president, no president has done it. This is very much like Jerusalem, moving the embassy to Jerusalem -- I did that.”

While the news was welcomed by most Israelis, some saw it as a cynical ploy to interfere in their election and help Netanyahu at a time when he’s facing increasing scrutiny in a sprawling corruption probe. Merav Michaeli, a member of the opposition Labor party, said there’s little national debate that the Golan should stay in Israeli hands.

It “only helps public opinion for Netanyahu,” she added. “That’s why it came now. And so it doesn’t really benefit Israel now, it benefits Netanyahu.”

Netanyahu is scheduled to visit the White House next week ahead of his April 9 re-election vote. While he’s officially coming for the AIPAC conference, an annual pro-Israel policy gathering, his visit will serve up excellent campaign material back home. He’s certain to be photographed meeting Trump while his speech, delivered in his American-accented baritone, will get plenty of airtime in Israel.

“What Trump is doing is totally gratuitous,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Bill Clinton. “He is intervening in an Israeli election for the sake of his friend Bibi Netanyahu, and in the process undermining Israel’s chances of achieving peace with its neighbor Syria.”

Trump’s move may also give the president a political boost as he courts Jewish voters in the U.S.

The U.S. had signaled strongly in recent weeks it was ready to accept Israeli sovereignty. In an annual report on human rights released last week, the State Department referred to the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza as “Israeli-controlled,” not “Israeli-occupied.”

Asked about the report, which dropped the previous use of the word “occupied” in reference to the Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza, Pompeo said the change in language was intentional.

“It wasn’t a mistake; it wasn’t an error. It was done knowingly. We believe it’s the most factual description that was appropriate for the report,” he said.

American support for Israel has strengthened under Trump, who moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018 and backed out of the nuclear agreement his predecessor Barack Obama negotiated with Iran, a cherished goal of Netanyahu.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said Trump’s move would destabilize the region.

"I can say that all of you can imagine what would have happened if Israel were not in the Golan," Netanyahu said. “I think it’s time the international community recognizes Israel’s stay in the Golan, the fact that the Golan will always remain part of the state of Israel.”

The U.S. recognition underscores the changing reality on the ground, as the chances of Israel returning the northern territory to Syria diminished.

Pompeo told reporters at a briefing in Kuwait on Wednesday that there had been no change in U.S. policy toward the Golan Heights. In a media roundtable on Thursday, he declined to say whether the U.S. was weighing whether to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan.

“The administration’s considering lots of things always, and I try to make sure we get to answers before we talk about them publicly,” Pompeo said.

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